Friday, September 14, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Guild Wars 2

There's been a bit of a delay on this one, which I apologize for, but mostly it is because I am both studying for my PhD exams and playing this game like crazy. So I warn you that I am not the most objective source on this game. I remember playing Guild Wars 1 quite a while ago, but only vaguely. Without further ado, I'll get to work.

Guild Wars 2 is kind of an MMO in that it has the large amount of players per server, but it has no subscription fee - all you have to do is buy the game. So once you own the game, you can play when you want, leave, come back, and as long as you still have your copy of the game, it won't cost you anything. Don't get me wrong, they do have a real money conversion thing going - you use real money to buy gems in a game store, and you can use those gems to buy extra character slots, bank space, clothing dyes, or armor skins, among other things - you can even convert the gems into in-game money. While this may seem like a way to make player pay extra money to buy more character slots and such, I should note that the gems-to-game-money conversion goes both ways - you can buy gems with in-game money, as well, so make enough money in the game and you're good to go on gems.

Character-wise, there are five races - the Norns (big, burly Viking-type people - literally, Norns are like 7 feet tall at their shortest, and over 8.5 feet at their tallest), Humans, Sylvari (a race of plant people, some of whom are bioluminescent, so they glow in the dark when it is nighttime), Charr (big, scary, cat/hyena people), and Asura (tiny - 3-3.5 feet tall - mad scientists). Your race, whatever you choose, has no mechanical effect, aside from some subpar abilities you can acquire as 'elite' skills; race really only matters for story purposes. Each race has a series of questions to answer in character creation, and these questions help determine the direction of your personal story.

After race, there are 8 classes, and they are all wildly different. Warriors, as might be expected, hit things or shoot them, and wear big, heavy armor - they're also very tough. Guardians are a bit like paladins - they use many of the same weapons as Warriors, but with a more mystical bent to their skills. They are also tough, but their toughness involves more activity.  After that, we have Thieves, who attack from stealth and do massive amounts of initial damage; Rangers, who have pets to assist them in combat; Engineers, who can pick and choose from an array of gadgets, like rocket boots, flamethrowers, or elixir guns, to kill enemies or assist other players; Elementalists, who use the magic of the elements, each of which has its own particular specialty; Necromancers, who create minions from dead flesh and bone to assist them in combat; and Mesmers, who use illusions and misdirection to mess with the minds of their foes. Each of the classes has an entirely different approach to things, and as I've only played Warrior, Guardian, and Elementalist, I can't comment on them all - but they fit a wide variety of styles.

After class, though, comes something I haven't seen before - weapon choice. Well, I have seem weapon choice - WoW let most classes use a variety of weapons, for example. But in WoW, your abilities remained the same regardless of which weapon you used - only the animation changed. In Guild Wars 2 (or GW2), though, each weapon has its own set of skills. On my warrior, I primarily use a giant hammer, which swings in a wide arc, hitting a pretty big area, and has several abilities that stun, knock down, or control enemies. Sometimes I swap out to a mace and warhorn, letting me club enemies over the head while using the warhorn to buff myself and allies. Or I could choose to use my longbow, which can shoot flaming areas, cause an area to light on fire, and blind enemies from a distance. Weapon skills cover the first 5 slots on your ability bar; most have a 'burst' skill, too, which builds up in combat to let you release for a big hit.

Each class has its own ways to fill up the last 5 slots on your ability bar. One slot is always a healing ability; you have several choices, but it means you always have a way to heal yourself. The next three are utility slots; for a Warrior, I could fill them with the ability to Kick an opponent and interrupt them; or throw Bolas at a charging foe to immobilize them; maybe shout "Fear Me!" and have enemies run away, or plant a battle standard to help my defense. Each class has their own array, and they're all different, but fitting to the class. Finally, there is an elite skill slot; these are for big, scary things, and are also where racial abilities come in. Norns, for example, can turn into human/bear hybrids, of human/wolf hybrids, for 30 seconds, while Charr can call in an artillery strike or grab a bazooka; Warriors can transform into a giant Juggernaut, making them stronger, tougher, and bigger. The racial elite skills are a bit underpowered compared to the class skills, but they are fun and thematic.

One of the big draw of GW2 is PvP. There are several ways to go about this in the game, and even I, who normally hate PvP, have tried most of them. For one, in each race's home city, there is an activity - for the Norns, it is the Keg Brawl, which is basically 5-on-5 rugby with kegs on a frozen lake. No killing, just smacking and scoring. Then there is single and small group PvP, which is just what it says; you can face off against other players solo or on a small team, and even compete in tournaments. Finally, there is World versus World - three servers meet on 4 maps and fight it out to control the most territory on each map. This is the biggest PvP I've seen, with literally hundreds of players per server taking part in this combat; you attack towers and castles, build siege weapons, collect NPC allies, and fight off massive groups of opposing players. It's really something to see 50 or 60 of your fellow server-mates assaulting a castle, building rams, trying to shoot down trebuchets, and generally just having a crazy time.

For those of you not into PvP, there is still plenty to do. If you like crafting, there's plenty of it - and crafting can actually really help while gaining levels, because crafting items and discovering new crafting plans gives plenty of experience. If you just like fighting monsters, they are all over the place - there are 25 zones of varying level ranges to get your monster-slaying on. If you like exploring (as I do), there's that, too - and there are specific things to discover in each zone. Points of Interest (specific places), Waypoints (places you can transport to, or restart if you die), Skill Challenges (to help earn skill points to purchase your utility and elite skills), and Vistas (specific, often hard-to-reach places that, when reached, give you a nice, quasi-cutscene view of the beautiful scenery Arenanet created, from massive ruins to mountain peaks) dot every zone, and if you get all of them for a zone, you get a zone completion bonus - usually some kind of level-appropriate equipment or crafting materials.

The look of characters are relatively customizable, as well. While you can't retain old armor looks in a 'dressing room' function, you can use easy-to-acquire items to transfer the look of one item onto the mechanical bits of a more useful one. I did this with some lower-level armor whose look I liked, but wasn't protecting me well enough as I grew in levels. You also start with an array of dyes to color your armor and clothing; everyone starts with 20 or so (determined by race), and you can find more in play, and the dyes come in almost every shade you could want. Things like pure white or black, though, are hard to find, and pricy to buy. I wish you didn't have to use items to re-skin new armor with an old look, but it still gives you far more customization than WoW does.

Questing is another area where GW2 differs from games like WoW. Instead of having quest hubs, and having to take quests which make you run back and forth from questgivers, GW2 works in a much more dynamic fashion - in each zone, there are people who need help. When you get close to one, it will show up on your map, as well as what that person wants done. Sometimes it is killing pesky enemies, but it might also be fixing fences, or herding wayward animals,  or helping with troop morale. There are also a number of dynamic events going on in each zone - in one area, there are a string of events as you fight off an attack by centaurs, then pursue them back to their home base, fight your way in, take out the lower-level leaders, and then kill their supreme commander. If you fail to fight off the initial centaur attack, though, then instead of pursuing the centaurs, there will be another event centered on retaking the human camp. These go back and forth across each zone, and they mean you're never running back to town for the next quest - just moving around the map in a more organic fashion, which feels very freeing to me.

There are also dungeons in GW2, though they are all for 5-person groups, and while I haven't done any of them yet, I know how they work; guildmates have told me that they were a very strange experience, because there are no specific healers, tanks, or damage dealers; people can swap out weapons and utility skills often, and so can move from close combat to a ranged support role in seconds, even during a boss fight. I am told it is a very different experience from the average MMO dungeon, and I hope to check it out soon - the elimination (or at the least lessening) of the 'Holy Trinity' interests me quite a bit.

I am still very active in Guild Wars 2 for the time being, and since it has no subscription fee, I expect to be playing for a while. I'm a member of the guild, Vanguards Grifters & Orphans, on the Tarnished Coast server; if you try the game out, look me up.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Discussing MMOs: The Secret World

After taking a weekend off (for some serious MMO playing), I'm back, though this will either be the last or next-to-last entry in this short series. The Secret World is an MMO by Funcom, and it is an MMO that is far from the norm - instead of a bright, open fantasy world, The Secret World (or TSW) is about horror, conspiracy, and what will happen at the end of the current age. It's very different from most MMOs I've played or seen. For one thing, the RPG takes place, essentially, on modern day Earth, though it is an Earth that isn't very familiar to most of us.

 Everyone's character is human, though you will certainly run into non-human (or inhuman) things during play. There are no classes, and instead of two opposing factions, they have three, each one a secret society: The Templars, the Illuminati, and the Dragon. Each society is in a fight with the others about how to approach the secret supernatural world (the Secret World of the title) and how the Earth's next age will go when the current one ends. Unlike, say, WoW, WAR, or TOR, the factions can talk to each other in game chat, and people from various societies can even group together to do difficult missions or go into 5-person instances. Guilds (or cabals) are one faction only, however, and each faction has their own chat channel where they can speak amongst themselves without the other factions knowing. Each is based in a different real-life city (London, New York City, and Seoul), which is reasonably large, has plenty of bits to explore, and even has the occasional mission.

Characters in TSW are different, in that not only are there no classes, but also no levels. You choose a faction, and then you choose two weapon categories (out of 9, from Shotguns to Blades to Chaos magic), and you're done. As you progress through the game, you put points (Ability Points, or AP) into various abilities for your favored weapons; each character has seven slots for active abilities (ones you hit buttons to use) and seven passive slots (ones that provide benefits to you regardless of what buttons you hit). How you assemble your skills (or 'deck', the term used by the game to refer to the full suite of 14 abilities) determines how your character fights. You also put a different kind of points (Skill Points, or SP) into the degree of skill you have in your weapon group; this determines what grade of weapon you can use; the higher (up to 10), the better. You keep earning experience for AP and SP throughout the game, so, in theory, you could eventually max out every ability and every skill.

While all character are human, most don't look anything alike; character creation has a fair degree of customization, with more to be added in-game soon. In addition, the clothes your character wears are entirely separate from any gear that provides bonuses to statistics - you wear what you want (bought at in-game stores), and how you look never has any impact on how effective your character is. TSW is even more lenient in this regard than superhero games like CO and DCUO; in those games, you can find costume pieces that will affect your stats, and you often have the ability to save the look of that piece even if you replace it later, but in TSW, looks and stats are totally separate. The only things on your avatar that you  will see change are your weapons; some Hammer weapons look like axes, some like sledgehammers, some like weapons from hell, but other than that, your look is entirely up to you. This is something I think other games need to do more of; item sets are nice, but I really shouldn't have to look like a clown in order to be functional (I'm looking at you, WoW and TOR).

The factions being able to speak to each other is another nice touch; it tells the player that while the factions aren't terribly friendly to each other (the Templars and Illuminati have been in a sort of cold war for centuries), they realize that the world's current troubles are bigger than their arguments, for the most part. Aside from some text when missions are turned in, and the tutorial, factions actually don't play a huge role in the game. You get a call on your character's phone whenever the faction has decided you have moved up in rank, and the Templars (the faction I play) have three missions they send you on, but otherwise they play almost no role in the game. While it is nice they aren't all over every character's business, I think I would have preferred the factions to be a bit more involved; I want my Templar to have a much different experience than, say, an Illuminati player.

Missions are another interesting thing to look at. TSW is always careful to call them missions, never quests, and they have divided them up into several categories. First, each of the three main play areas has a long, involved story quest. Then, each 5-person instance has its own quest. Then there are sidequests, things you get from items spread throughout the game world that tend to be minor tasks with relatively small rewards. And then there are the main quests. The main quests are divided up into three categories - action, infiltration, and investigation. Action missions are what you'd expect - the missions consists primarily of fighting and killing, with no subtlety involved. Infiltration missions are harder (fro some) because they involve getting around and performing your task without being noticed (or, occasionally, by killing the few who do see you). From avoiding cameras and sentry drones to running gauntlets of patrolling guards and mines on multi-level constructions, infiltration missions are about being stealthy. Finally, there are investigation missions, and these are where the game shines. With these missions, you will be required to actually investigate things, often very obscure, and often difficult to figure out; there is an in-game web browser to assist with these. For an investigation mission, you might be asked to crack a substitution cypher by converting the number of the first 26 elements on the Periodic Table into letters and then translating a message; or you might need to find the password to a computer, be given the hint that it is the owner's wife's name, and, by finding the owner's company ID on his body, go to the (fictional) company website, look through the employee roster, and determine his wife from that. They are complex, difficult, and involve a lot of thought; while most of them are sadly available in cheat form, I prefer to do them the long way.

Sadly, TSW is lacking in at least one area I love, and that is exploration. Currently, there are only three areas in the game, besides the starting cities - Solomon Island (an island off the coast of New England cut off form the rest of the world), the Valley of the Sun God in Egypt, and the wilds of Transylvania. Between the three areas, there are 8 zones - 3 on the island, 2 in Egypt, and 3 in Transylvania - and they are all quite similar in theme. Both Solomon Island and Transylvania are dark, foggy, and depressing, though there are some exceptional areas like a haunted amusement park or the churchyard where Vlad Dracula is buried. Egypt, while sunnier, reminded me of a hellish cross between Resident Evil 5 and the Biblical plagues on crack. While each area keeps to its theme well - and I can see touches of Lovecraft, Stephen King, Silent Hill, and Resident Evil as influences - it really comes down to three very similar, often oppressively dark areas. I realize it is a horror game, but even in horror movies, directors realize that audiences need a few moments away from the darkness every so often or the darkness and horror stops meaning anything. Speaking as someone with depression, I can only take a couple weeks of that at a time before I need to take a break. I'm still playing, but I don't know for how much longer; the release of Guild Wars 2 (my possible final entry in this series) and the impact this is having on my generally depressed state might necessitate some time away from the game before coming back to see how it all turns out.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Star Wars: The Old Republic

As a profoundly geeky person, I have been a fan of Star Wars for a long, long time. I have also been a long-time fan of almost every game the game studio Bioware ever made. Thus, when the two combined to create a Star Wars MMO in the (slightly advance) timeline of the hit game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I figured that things couldn't possibly go wrong. In some ways, I was right, but in other ways, I was terribly wrong.

Character creation is one of the areas where the game is very much like early WoW. There are two sides, Republic and Sith. Each side has its own classes (though each class is mirrored by the other side), and while the species of human, cyborg, Twi'lek, and Zabrak are available to both sides, the Miraluka and Mirialans are Republic-only, while Chiss, Rattataki, and Sith Purebloods are Sith only. Yes, you read that right; no Wookiees. Also no Devaronians, Duros, Bothans, Gamorreans, Gungans, Jawas, Rodians, or any of the other popular Star Wars species. While you can meet most of these other races, you can't play as them, which I found disappointing. Each class (bounty hunters, Imperial agents, Sith Warriors and Inquisitors for the Sith, Troopers, Smugglers, Jedi Consulars and Knights for the Republic) has two advanced classes that you can choose from once you reach a certain level, which can cause some serious divergence among class types.

Each class has its own storyline, and they are one of the best parts of the game. You start your storyline as soon as you finish creating your character, and it will go through the rest of the game with you. There is always a portion of your storyline to be followed on each planet, and they range from the somewhat mediocre (the Jedi Consular, from what I've heard) to the very thematic, cool, and fun (Bounty Hunter, Imperial Agent, and Smuggler). Though your story, you will meet a variety of characters who will choose (or be forced) to accompany you on your way through the galaxy; these will be your companions, computer-controlled NPCs who accompany you on quests for an extra bit of firepower, guarding, or healing ability, as well as some amusing dialogue. At least one of your companions will be a possible love interest (well, if you're straight - if you're gay, then while Bioware has said they will add gay-friendly companions for love interests, they hadn't gotten around to it when I quit playing). Every time you speak to a character, either on your storyline or just for a regular quest, it will start a full cutscene, where you get to choose from a variety of dialogue choices and the NPC will respond accordingly. Each character is fully voiced, often by a voice actor who is fairly well-known for such work, with a lot of cameos from other more well-known actors and actresses. This is possible one of the most immersive things I have seen in an MMO, and it was worth playing for this, at least.

Each character will also, eventually, get their own starship. This is determined by class, sadly; you don't get a choice of ships. While they are fun to see in a docking bay, your primary interaction with a ship will be as a resting place and the means by which you travel between planets; each ship looks different, and your companions will wait there while not on missions. Sadly, there is no customization available for your ship; every Smuggler's ship will look the same. Ships are also used for space missions, where you stop playing your character and instead pilot your craft on a space-going mission, shooting enemy fighters, avoiding meteorites, and generally being destructive. You follow a specific path for each mission, sadly, so while you can move around the screen a bit, it's basically a rail-shooter.

Being a Star Wars game, you can, of course, be a Light Side or Dark Side character. This is not restricted to your Republic or Sith affiliation; I played as my main character a Light Side Bounty Hunter, and I know a few people who played Dark Side Jedi. While some of the choices that affect your Light/Dark Side meters are fun, some can be head-scratching; in one mission, after retrieving medical supplies at the behest of an embattled field medic running out of battleground supplies, you are accosted by a civilian who demands the medical supplies for a group of refugees. This sounds like a difficult choice, but in the game, it is simple - giving the supplies to the refugees is the Light Side choice, and giving them to the medic who asked for them is the Dark Side choice. Also, of the two, only Dark Side choices seem to have a visible effect on your character; the more Dark Side you go, the paler, veinier, and generally scarier you look. Light Side choices don't have any visible effect. Also, if you want to be essentially neutral, good luck; there are some items - some of which are cosmetic, but others of which are important - which depend on you choosing Light or Dark.

Speaking of cosmetic, The Old Republic (or TOR) decided to go in the same direction as WoW with regards to outward appearance. So the armor you have equipped is the armor you see, and there are no easy ways to change that. There are certain items, both armor and weapons, which can be improved gradually as you play, so that you can keep a coherent look without wearing outdated and useless armor, but these items, especially the ones that look good, aren't often easy to find. Also, each class only has a single weapon style available to them; Bounty hunters only use blaster pistols, Troopers use either blaster rifles or assault cannons (depending on their advance class), and Jedi/Sith only use lightsabers - Knights/Wariors either use one or two, while Consulars/Inquisitors use either a single lightsaber or a double-bladed lightsaber. This means that most members of a class will be easily recognizable, because they will be wearing very similar armor and using very similar weapons.

TOR also made the decision to have groups that require the Holy Trinity of WoW - if you want to do instances (which can be quite fun), you need a tank, a healer, and 2 damage-dealers (groups in TOR are only 4 people). Occasionally a member can be substituted for by an NPC companion, bu the computer isn't very good at controlling companions in instances. I found this design decision particularly disappointing. I wanted to play a Bounty Hunter who could, for instance, jump into combat, use a flamethrower at close range, then use my jetpack to fly off to a distance and snipe. This was, however, not an option; while the Bounty Hunter does indeed have a jetpack, it can only be used in one or two abilities; no fancy jetpack-assisted out-of-combat jumps. Some of the mechanics TOR implemented for classes also didn't work well in the settings they were designed for; instanced 'dungeons' (more often than not starships, space stations, or abandoned archaeological digs) often had boss fights that required being mobile, while both the Smuggler and Imperial Agent classes had a number of abilities only available while they were in cover - which necessitated staying in one location.

As for exploration, there were quite a variety of planets to travel to. Korriban, with the ancient temples of the Sith; Nar Shaddaa, playground of the Hutts; Coruscant, jewel of the Republic; Alderaan, the planet of royalty. Each planet was designed for a certain level range, and to play through your storyline, you had to go to each planet in an order determined by Bioware. On most planets, even the ones that were hotly contested by both sides, you rarely saw players from the opposing faction - there were computer-controlled enemies of that faction, but the players were often in areas you never saw or had a reason to go to. Open PvP only really became available on the 'final' planet or two, and even then it was rare to see people engaging in large-scale PvP; most people simply queued up for instanced PvP battlegrounds. So there was a lot of ground to cover, but each planet was very monothematic; one part of Alderaan was very much like the next.

Overall, I thought the storylines and companions were fun, but it seemed that the game had been intended, essentially, as a massive single-player game, and then had MMO elements added into it later; this meant, for the most part, that the most fun parts of the game were not shared experiences, but the storyline cutscenes that, even if they were present, your fellow party members could not take part in. It would have been great fun as a single-player successor to the original Knights of the Old Republic, but I think TOR went too close to the formula of WoW with its MMO elements, and as such failed to truly distinguish itself from the leader of the pack in all the ways that make a difference in an MMO. It also didn't help that, when I began to become disillusioned with TOR, I also had massive problems with the ending of Mass Effect 3- also a Bioware game - and so, not feeling particularly generous, decided to quit both.

Next up: A Secret World

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online is the first MMO I played after it became free-to-play. It is, of course, based on the Lord of the Rings property, and takes place, chronologically, just before or around the time when the Fellowship of the Ring is formed in Rivendell. The company, sadly, only has access to the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit; it cannot make use of material from the Silmarillion or other Tolkien works. Predictably, players play characters in Middle-Earth, and unlike WoW or WAR, there is only one side. You can choose to play as a human, elf, dwarf, or hobbit, and different classes are open to each race; humans can play as 8 of the 9 available classes, while hobbits only have access to 4. The graphics of the game are slightly better than those of WoW in that they are not as cartoonish, but they aren't high-quality like DCUO or WAR.

I only played Lord of the Rings Online (or LOTRO) for a little while, but in the time I did play, I learned quite a bit. Despite being a game basd in a well-known world, LOTRO has a lot to offer, even to veteran MMO players. For one, there is a long, epic storyline that progresses through the game; it progresses parallel to, but outside of, normal area quests, and is generally relatively difficult - though I hear that it can become easier with multiple players progressing on it at once. This gives the game a coherent storyline, even as you move between quest areas that are often unrelated.

Health is handled differently in LOTRO; characters don't have hit points or health points, but morale. Some creatures - particularly direct servants of Sauron, like Ringwraiths or powerful undead - will lower your morale simply by being near your character, so seeing this effect is a telltale sign that there is a difficult fight or area ahead. I found this to be an interesting mechanic, because it made some fights that would have otherwise been easy into harrowing affairs, though fun. I don't know that I'd recommend it for other games - it works in LOTRO because of the creeping fear and sense of terror inspired by true evil - but it works to make the game feel more immersive and thematic.

Like the superhero MMOS I played, LOTRO has a loose, easy method for creating your character's look; the armor you appear to be wearing is not necessarily the armor your character has equipped, and you can store a number of armor pieces in a sort of closet, allowing you much greater freedom in how your character looks. This allowed me, as a player, to make my human Guardian look like the warrior from Rohan I pictured him as, rather than someone who armored himself by picking random pieces of armor in the dark. This is really a feature that all MMOs ought to embrace.

Once you reach a certain level, you can buy a house for your character; houses reside in instanced neighborhoods, each with dozens of houses, and they vary in appearance depending on where you buy them - a human house looks different from a dwarven abode. In your character's house, not only can you decorate it according to your whim, but you can also use it as a way of displaying trophies you have won from quests or difficult monsters. Other characters can come visit you, and you can likewise visit them, to relax or roleplay in a quiet environment - and to show off, of course.

One thing I never tried, though I would have liked to, was LOTRO's music system; each character can learn, at the very least, how to play a lute, and the Minstrel class can play every instrument, and each instrument can be played with in-game macros covering several octaves. With sufficient organization, this can lead to some cool in-game musical performances by other players, and there are scheduled musical festivals - the most well-known of these being 'Weatherstock', essentially Woodstock on Weathertop mountain. It has no mechanical effect on the game, but is a fun way to bring the community together for something besides in-game monster hunting and such.

Being set in Middle-Earth, there is an enormous amount of territory to cover, and most of it will be familiar to fans - you can visit Bree, the Prancing Pony, the Shire, Weathertop, and the first expansion opened up the Mines of Moria. After the Moria expansion came other packs that expanded Mirkwood and Isengard, and an expansion coming in October of 2012 should open up Rohan. I never got a chance to see Moria in-game, as it is quite the dangerous place and I never got to a level capable of handling it, but I imagine it would have been a sight to see. LOTRO definitely fulfilled my need for exploration; I doubt I explored even a third of what the game had to offer.

As a free-to-play game, I have to say I never really noticed any real focus on getting me to buy from the game store; there were a number of items available in the store that appealed to me - a variety of character outfits, new mounts, and even some useful items - but none of them looked like they were so necessary that I would need to spend money to get them. Indeed, by performing some deeds in the game, you can earn points for use in the game's store, meaning that if you work hard enough you might never need to spend money on the game. From what I can tell, the game is still going strong; Wikipedia notes that LOTRO is said to be the third most popular MMO, with Turbine, the company that runs the game, citing its free-to-play model as a large part of the reason. LOTRO is one of the games I would like to return to, if I knew anyone else who was likely to play, because even in such a  detailed world, it gets a bit boring doing everything alone. That was, in fact, the reason why I stopped playing - I just felt too lonely. And so I stopped for a time, but there was more on the horizon.

Next up: Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Warhammer Online

Warhammer Online, for those of you who don't know, is based on the enormously popular (well, among wargamers) miniatures wargame, Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Warhammer was the loose foundation for the original Warcraft games, thought the two have since diverged significantly. Much like Warcraft, it is set in a fantasy world, with elves, dwarves, orcs, and the like. Also, like WoW, there are two factions: the Armies of Order (humans, high elves, and dwarves) and the Armies of Chaos (Chaos, orcs & goblins, and dark elves). Character creation was a lot like WoW, except that each race had its own classes, and other races couldn't take them; each race's classes were based on units from the miniatures game, and generally pretty thematic, though they lost points in the minds of some by having three classes allow only male characters, while there was only one female-only class. The graphics for Warhammer Online were somewhat less cartoonish than those of WoW, which was nice, and made the differences between the two easier to see.

One of the primary draws of Warhammer Online was their PvP system, also known as Realm versus Realm; you could have armies of each faction made up of players from several servers, which meant that battles could be quite large and bloody. This was a big deal at the time, though since Warhammer Online didn't perform as well as hoped, servers dropped fairly quickly in number, meaning that the populations in RvR battles dropped as well. Because of the draw of  PvP play in Warhammer Online (or WAR), even I gave it a shot, and I found it kind of cool, especially since the holders of a battlefield in a given area actually had some effect on the rest of that area. I never got to play in the high-end RvR battlefields, but the lower-level stuff was crazy and vicious, but fun.

Another of the things that WAR used that I found pretty innovative were the idea of public quests. Public quests were, as the name implies, public; certain places in zones would have a quest, or series of quests, start every so often, and the quest could be carried out and worked on by anyone nearby, meaning that things got done much faster if others in the area helped - in fact, some, or even most, public quests were impossible without other players working together, even if they weren't grouped together. This encouraged players on the same side as you to be sociable, even if they didn't know you, because you might be the difference between finishing a public quest or failing. From what I remember, the rewars were quite nice, as well, and scaled depending on how successful you were.

WAR, much like WoW, took to heart the idea that a game world should be large and have plenty of places to explore; there were 31 zones, 10 each for High Elves/Dark Elves and Humans/Chaos and 11 for Dwarves/Orcs & goblins. 3 of those 31 were high-level contested zones, which changed depending on which side held them at the time. Chaos and the Humans each had a capital city for their respective sides, which could also be attacked and conquered. There was a great deal to see, and as I never reached the level cap, I never saw all of it; I probably saw only about half.

I think, though, WAR was crippled by the fact that it was released only a few weeks prior to the Wrath of the Lich King expansion for WoW; people tried WAR for a couple weeks, and then returned to WoW, causing the game's population to drop vastly: according to Wikipedia, from 800,000 subscribers around launch down to 300,000 only 3 months later. As WAR stayed with a subscription model, instead of becoming free-to-play like many other MMOs, they continued to lose customers and money, causing them to shrink even more; as of December of 2011, they had only 3 remaining servers worldwide. It's sad, because the game had some good ideas, and the PvP was more enjoyable than that of WoW (at least for me), but I guess the market couldn't handle two big subscription-based MMOs.

Next up: Lord of the Rings Online.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Discussing MMOs: DC Universe Online

I was apparently still interested in superhero MMOs after Champions Online, and so my next foray into the world of MMOs was DC Universe Online. As the name implies, it takes place in the world of DC Comics, and so many of the prominent NPCs are recognizable to may people: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, the Joker, and so on. As in Champions Online, creating a character and costume is a large part of the process of starting the game; you have a wide variety of costume options when the game begins, and can unlock more during play. Since the look of a superhero character is so important, the ability to have a costume that you, as player, like from character creation onwards is nice, and it helps with immersion into the character. The characters in DC Universe Online looked more realistic than those from Champions Online, and even had different options to choose from at character creation to change body language, from Comical to Serious. The power sets in the game could have been expanded, though; one of the most iconic power sets, that of Green Lantern, wasn't added until the first expansion pack, even though there were Green Lanterns you could interact with and do missions for in the game.

While I didn't take advantage of this, in DC Universe Online (or DCUO), you can choose to play as either a hero or a villain. As a hero, you will have a big-name mentor; for character with tech-based abilities or normal human skills, your mentor is Batman; for people with superhuman abilities, Superman is your mentor; and for people whose abilities are magical in nature, Wonder Woman mentors you. Conversely, on the villain side, Joker takes the position of Batman, Lex Luthor takes Superman's mentor spot, and Circe takes Wonder Woman's role. This means that you will almost certainly run into players of the opposing allegiance during regular play, though unless you play on a PvP server, fighting amongst yourselves is optional.

One of the more enjoyable things about DCUO is that virtually every NPC, and especially the named ones which most people would be familiar, has a voice actor, some of them recognizable - Adam Baldwin for Superman, for instance, or, for fans of the Batman animated series, Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker. By making these characters have actual voices, as opposed to simple text boxes, I felt like I was actually a part of the world.

DCUO was also one of the few MMOs that was not just PC-based; you could also play it on the Playstation 3, meaning that at least some console gamers were a part of the player base. This also meant that the setup for powers and abilities was relatively simple and easy to use, as it had to be something that was viable on both the PC and while using a Playstation controller. I wish this was embraced by more MMOs, as I have a number of friends who seem to play games exclusively on consoles, and this would allow me to play with those friends as well as those who prefer to play games on their PCs.

Sadly, to an even greater degree than Champions Online, DCUO had very little room for exploration. There were really only three zones: Metropolis, Gotham City, and Central City. While each city was very large, the feel never really changed very much between areas of a city. Gotham felt very different than Metropolis, but one section of Metropolis was very similar to the next, even if one was being invaded by aliens and another attacked by super-powered terrorists. The only forays out of the three cities happened in tightly controlled instances, and so there was never a feeling that, if you went to, say, the moon, that you were there for anything other than a single short mission with a few other players. Each allegiance had their own 'base' area - heroes had the Watchtower, while villains had the Hall of Doom - but these were really very basic areas that were mostly for show and making character changes. Consequently, as there was little to explore in DCUO, even though I enjoyed the world and the characters, I became bored with my surroundings relatively quickly, and so only played for about two months. Then I went on MMO hiatus again.

Next up" Warhammer Online.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Champions Online

After WoW, I took a break - most of a year. The next MMO I played in was Champions Online, in large part because I had been hearing good things about it and I am a big fan of superhero-type things. Champions Online (or CO) is based in a setting created in a tabletop RPG - the Champions game. So most of the signature heroes are unfamiliar to mainstream comic readers; even I had little idea of who or what the named character were. CO's graphical style is very comic-oriented; the characters look like they just leapt off of the pages of a comic book, which was an interesting change after playing WoW. Now, while CO is currently free-to-play, and has only a limited amount of set archetypes that free-to-play users can use when creating characters, when I joined character creation was still very customizable.

One of the biggest things I noticed about CO was that you basically designed your character's look (for a large part of the game) in character creation. Costume, body armor, body shape, even whether your character looked human, animalistic, or alien, you determined all this stuff in creation. There was no big worry with having to find the right dropped equipment to clothe your character so that you didn't look like a jester, as happened in WoW; you could add or change your character's costume later, as some options for clothing only became available through play, but for the most part, the way your character looked in creation was how you wanted it to look and how it would stay. I am a big fan of things like this in MMOs; part of what I want in a character is to look cool and thematic, not like I just assembled my outfit by picking up random things out of a Goodwill container. You could even change some really small, and yet important, details - you could have energy blasts come from your head instead of your hands, or you could change the color or look of your projectile attacks; you could make a character that looked like a gorilla walk and run like a gorilla rather than a regular human. All of these little details made it feel like you had a great deal of control over your character, and that the game was empowering you to do what you wanted.

The variety of powers you could choose with your character were also pretty astounding. There are six general power sets - Energy Projector, Technology, Martial Arts, Mentalist, Brick, and Mystic - and each power set has a number of power groupings within it - Technology, for instance, contains Archery, Gadgeteering, Munitions, and Power Armor. you could mix and match between any of these power sets, though some power sets were seen as 'optimal' for purposes of PvP play, or grouping for instances, but other than that, you were free to choose any powers you wanted. Not only could you have a wide variety of powers, though, but each character got to choose their own method of speedy traveling. Where in WoW you had mounts, which would increase in speed as you leveled your character, in CO you got travel powers. You could fly, travel at superspeed, make giant leaps, swing around (not unlike Spiderman), teleport, and travel in a number of other ways. All of these added up to essentially the same thing, but was just one more point of customization that helped make your character unique.

The third big innovation I found in CO was the Nemesis system. All good superheros need a villain - Superman has Lex Luthor, Captain America has the Red Skull, Batman has the Joker. In CO, you got the chance to give your character a nemesis, too. Once your character had advanced enough, you were given the choice to create your character's nemesis - you chose his powers, who his minions were, what the nemesis looked like, and why they were your character's nemesis. You would then eventually go through a series of encounters with your nemesis, popping up at random through gameplay, eventually ending up with you sending your nemesis to jail - at which point you could create a new nemesis, or choose to keep re-using the old one. Again, this made it feel like you had some real control over your own story, and even if the greater world never saw it, you knew that even if you changed nothing else int he game world, your nemesis could be jailed - and stay there. Well, until his inevitable prison break, of course.

The big problem I had with CO was just that, at release, there was simply not a huge amount of content to play through. The developers packed a huge amount of material into the few areas they did have on release - Millenium City, which unlike the cities in WoW, was gigantic and had a ton of content to do, the Canadian Wilderness, the Desert, Monster Island, and the underwater area of Lemuria - but compared to the amount of explorable areas in WoW, it fell quite short. Exploration, as I noted in my entry for WoW, is one of the things I really like to do in MMOs, and so the paucity of explorable areas really bummed me out. It also meant that there was a very clear progression of areas, and there wasn't really any way around that; from Millenium City, you went to the Canadian Wilderness, then to the Desert, then to Monster Island, then on to Lemuria. I hear they eventually added other areas, but that was after I had stopped playing, sadly. It also didn't help that, while I had friends and acquaintances who played WoW, I knew virtually nobody in CO; not having anyone to banter with really hindered my enjoyment of the game. After a few months of play - far short of the years I played WoW - I dropped out of Champions Online.

Next up: DC Universe Online.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Discussing MMOs: World of Warcraft

I don't have a lot of tabletop gaming going on, but I am active in online gaming with MMOs, so I thought I might talk a bit about those. Now, I have no background in computers, and I've never developed a game; I've got an MA (hopefully soon a PhD) in English. I like good stories, and I like to be able to be involved and see change occur in a persistent gaming world. I also like to play games online with friends, and so I feel drawn to MMOs as an easy way to keep in touch and play games with friends that I otherwise don't see very often. I've played a number of MMOs, and there are a lot of things, both good and bad, I have seen in each; I thought it might be interesting to talk about those.

World of Warcraft is up first because, even 7+ years after release, it is still the leader of the MMO market. It has something like 9 million subscribers, even after such a long time on the market, and is set to release its fourth expansion later this year. I started playing World of Warcraft (or WoW) the day after it was released, in large part because I had been so fond of the Warcraft series of strategy games that had preceded it. The world of WoW is a familiar one to anyone even moderately familiar with fantasy; there are two player factions, the Alliance (made up of, originally, Humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Night Elves) and the Horde (consisting of Orcs, Trolls, Tauren, and Undead). They are in a state of constant low-grade war over the lands of the world of Azeroth, and being a fantays land, it fits many of the tropes of traditional fantasy - dwarves live in a city in a mountain; night elves live in a tree city; orcs are savage, yet also somewhat noble, barbarians. Wizards wear robes, paladins fight evil, and both sides are trying to keep their place in the world.

As a WoW player, I played an Alliance character almost exclusively, so that is most of what I saw in the game; I also tended to avoid too much PvP, as it didn't really interest me. As an MMO player, I am interested in three things - exploring the world that is available to me; learning and playing a part in the story of the world; and advancing my own character (of which a large part was being able to clothe my character in armor and weapons I thought looked good). From the very first day in WoW, I had a blast with exploration; I slowly worked my way through the world, taking quests when I saw them, following storylines, and being able to see all the amazing sights that the game's developers had included. There are two main continents in basic WoW; the continent of the eastern Kingdoms consisted, at launch, of 23 zones, while the continents of Kalimdor had 18. This is, frankly, a massive amount of content; even considering that 6 of those zones were essentially for totally new players, it still left 35 zones to travel in, and that doesn't even count the faction cities - of which there were 3 per faction. Amount of content for exploration is one of the areas I feel that World of Warcraft really has yet to be exceeded. And the content was beautiful and thematic; from the idyllic forests of Westfall to the rocky, desolate Badlands, from the rolling plains of Mulgore to the ancient ruins of Azshara, each zone had a distinct feel to it. Sometimes the change between zones was a bit shocking - traveling from the oppressively dark, terrifying forest of Duskwood in to the lush jungles of Stranglethorn Vale was a bit jarring, but each area was its own place.

The story of WoW was, of necessity, often somewhat static. Since there were players in both factions, it was hard to have one clearly triumph over the other and still keep the players who were on the losing side, so there were other threats that had to emerge to keep the two sides in an uneasy cold war-type standoff. Humans contended with their own rebels and malcontents, while dwarves and gnomes dealt with the results of experiments gone wrong and the actions of the ancestors; orcs tried to carve out a place for themselves in a continent previously inhabited mostly by night elves, while the Undead of the Horde had to face their darker cousins in the Scourge. Most zones had quests that followed a theme or story, though at first this was somewhat disjointed; it wasn't until the Cataclysm expansion that almost every zone had its own coherent line of quests. Many of the important, world-changing events happened only in instances, whether for a single group or for a larger raid, and this was where I started having trouble. Once I had explored the world of Azeroth, I wanted to know who I was fighting, and why, and then I wanted to defeat them. The greatest opponents, though, were only faced in raids - foes like the great dragon Onyxia, or the lord of fire elementals, Ragnaros. For someone who was more interested in exploration than spending hours repeating boss fights in order to learn how to kill them, it was difficult to get into a raid and see how the story of Onyxia or Ragnaros played out. I was, and still mostly am, a 'casual' player; even though I can devote a large amount of time to playing games like WoW, I don't enjoy having to set aside 4-5 hours of time in a block to throw my character at the same fights time and time again - I wasn't going through those raids for the items that each boss dropped when killed (though some of it was nice), but rather to find out how the story played out. That's a personal problem, but it was the start of my disillusionment with WoW.

Advancing my character became a problem that extended from that. Once a character in WoW hit the level cap, there wasn't a lot to do on one's own; to get better gear, or find out the big parts of the story, you had to join groups, which often meant guilds. And while I enjoy being social in MMOs, I prefer to socialize with a smaller group of people I know, rather than dozens or hundreds at a time, in a guild where I may not know every member. I shied away from what were known as PUGs (or pick-up groups, groups that came together just for a single instance and often didn't know each other) because I found that, for the most part, it was hard to trust players I didn't know to either play seriously or to understand that I was not a perfect player. While I had my own story that I kept to myself about my main character (a human paladin named Helliyas), I found that most players had no interest in the game's story, or in telling their own story; they just wanted cool items with bigger numbers, or to kill the biggest number of opposing players, and those were things I had little interest in (the only items I was interested in were ones that I thought looked cool). While I did eventually manage to find groups of players that shared many of the same interests, the necessity of raiding in order to find out the best parts of the story still bothered me.

WoW, being the big dog of MMOs, is often pointed out as the originators of something called the Holy Trinity (no relation to Christian concepts): groups were made up of three characters types, a tank, a healer, and damage dealers. I hear that Everquest did this before WoW, and it may have been done before that; Everquest and WoW were certainly not the first players in the MMO market. Even in the granddaddy of RPGs, the original Dungeons & Dragons, there were originally only three classes - the Fighting Man, the Magic-User, and the Cleric (with the Thief coming later), and these classes vaguely fit the Holy Trinity at work in WoW grouping. It works in WoW, but I think that it has become one of those concepts that newer MMOs see and can't seem to think their way out of. WoW is only culpable in this because they are such a large market presence that other games seem to feel the need to copy at least some part of their gameplay in order to get off the ground.

The static nature of WoW didn't always bug me, but after I had explored everywhere and done nearly everything (at one point, there were literally fewer than ten Alliance quests that I had not done, in a quest with hundreds or thousands), I wanted things to change. I wanted what I was doing to have some effect on the world around me; if I killed all the rebels, I wanted an area to stay clear, or if I saved an NPC, I wanted them to stay saved, and maybe say thank you when I saw them after that. Because even Blizzard can't devote that much time to changing the game world, though, I began to feel like my character, who was as powerful (or moreso) than most NPCs, was basically invisible; enemies I killed reappeared moments later for other players to kill, while NPCs I saved were back in danger again in a minute or so. My character's deeds were rarely acknowledged, and on the off chance they were, it wasn't for long. There was almost nothing I could do to change the world, which made all my time feel somewhat wasted. This is one of my big sticking points; at some point in almost every MMO, I begin to feel like nothing I have done has mattered. It's part of why I play tabletop RPGs, because in a game like that, when we save someone, they stay saved, and kingdoms remain toppled. MMO worlds are persistent, yes, but they are static by necessity, rather than changing with the actions of players. I wish this could change, and WoW, even with this, still has more content to play through than almost every other MMO out there, but barring massive changes in game development, an adaptive, persistent MMO world is beyond our reach.

Next up: Champions Online.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Road to Civil War

This is, again, an idea that's been going through my head recently. With the most current MArvel RPG out, and the new Even book covering the Civil War event just out his past week, I've been reading through that with interest; I found the original comic even to be very uneven, but the idea behind it was an interesting one, and I think it would be a cool thing to play out on the Marvel universe. So, on that topic, here's my pitch.

The world has, for the past several years, been a strange and dangerous place. First there was the freak series of catastrophes that resulted in the Avengers disbanding; then came 9/11, showing us how even unpowered criminals can ruin lives. The world's greatest secret agent, Nick Fury, was forced into retirement when his secret acts resulted in a costly attack on Manhattan, and the world's mutant population - growing into the millions - disappeared almost overnight, leaving only around 200 mutants to try and pick up the pieces.

Things came to a head when a freak lightning and electrical storm - believed by some to be caused by frequent foe of Spiderman, Electro - cut power to the super-powered prison that is the Raft, freeing over 200 imprisoned vigilantes, alien beings, and criminal supervillains. Only a chance assortment of heroes - who have come to be called the New Avengers - managed to keep a terrible event from becoming far, far worse. Even with their help, most of the criminals still managed to escape.

These events, and others like them, have caused the United States Congress to begin looking into an idea that has been put forth a number of times before, but none with serious chance of success - the Super-Human Registration Act, or SHRA. This act will require all super-powered beings living and acting within the borders of the United States to register their real identity with the federal government, secret or not. They will also make themselves available as assistance in matters concerning the hunting and capturing of supervillains and similar criminals. Essentially, all registered super-powered people will work for the government - and all others will be fugitives, hunted down by those who might otherwise have been friends.

Where before such acts have had little chance of passing - even the Mutant Rights Act, put forth to supervise the ability of dangerous mutants to move within society, failed, and mutants have far less popular and public support. But tensions have been building in the nation, and there is a real chance that this act could pass - and being an unregistered person with superpowers, even if they go unused, could become a criminal act.

Whether you choose to portray established Marvel heroes, or create your own, you and your companions, along with many others, have been summoned to testify before Congress on this matter. Just one more major event involving superpowered destruction could make this act a reality, and create a rift in the superhuman community. Friend could fight friend, and teams could be split in two. This is your chance to play a character as a major player in the Civil War event, one that may be greatly different from that of the comics - Captain America may side with the pro-Registration heroes, or Reed Richards might choose to stand with his wife rather than his cold, hard equations. So choose a character, and prepare to walk the road to Civil War.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Make Mine Marvel (Heroic Roleplaying)!

I think my favorite current RPG has got to be the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game by Margaret Weis Productions. This may be because it came out so close to the Avengers movie, and I'm still on an awesome movie high, but I've always had a soft spot for superhero games. Many, many years ago, I used to have the old Marvel FASERIP RPG, and spent a lot of afternoons and evenings in the basement of a friend's house creating characters (and occasionally actually using them). I have a pretty large comic collection, which trends towards Marvel over DC (especially recently, since the reboot). So I like to think I know a fair bit about superheroes and villains, even if I haven't had a chance to see the system in action.

MHRP, like the Smallville and Leverage RPGs before it, runs on the Cortex + system. This probably doesn't mean a whole lot to people who don't know those games, but it's a relatively elegant system. It uses dice from d4 up to d12, which can be a bit confusing at times, but the dice grades help to show a different in degrees of power. What the system seems to do very well, at least from my point of view, is emulate the action flow of comics. Characters are made up of a small set of factors; the most ubiquitous of these is Affiliation. There are three grades of Affiliation - Solo, Buddy, and Team. Each character has a d6, d8, or d10, and one of these goes into each grade. This tells you, and other players, how your character prefers to operate - Wolverine, who likes to do his own thing, might have his d10 in Solo, while Captain America, who is at his best leading a team, has his d10 in Team. Affiliation is probably the most-used factor in rolls, since each character is always doing something either alone or with others.

After Affiliation, each character has distinctions. These are defining characteristics of each hero (or villain). To use familiar characters, Iron Man has a distinction of Billionaire Playboy, while Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, has a distinction of Hotheaded Hero. Each character has three, and if they are made relevant in a scene, if that relevance is helpful to the character (Tony Stark needs to use his money), you roll a d8; if it proves a hindrance (Johnny's rash actions get him into trouble), you roll a d4 and gain a Plot Point - these can be used for a variety of things, like performing extraordinary actions with powers, or finding (or creating) resources.

Each character also has one or two power sets. Each power set consists of between one and six powers, at varying levels; to use Captain America again, he has two power sets, Super Soldier Program (covering his enhanced durability, stamina, reflexes and strength), and Vibranium-Alloy Shield (which has its own durability, and use as a weapon). Each of the individual powers in each set has a rating; some have listed special effects (like the shield's ability to ricochet), and each power set has a limit - which can be used to temporarily disable the set - or even just a single power within the set - in order to gain a Plot Point. The limit mimics the part of comics where a hero's abilities are lost for a short period of time to build tension - a villain catching Cap's shield, or someone dousing the Human Torch.

After powers, there are specialties. Each character has a number of skills; there's no set number, just whatever you think your character should have. You really only get ratings in specialties you excel at, though - there are only two skill levels, Expert and Master. Skills only come up when they might be relevant - Reed Richards being a Science Master doesn't help in an interrogation. Finally, there are milestones; they don't add to rolls, but they do help advance your character; each character has two (or more) milestones, and each has three conditions. Each condition, if met, gets your character experience, and they aren't necessarily met by fighting; Iron Man, for example, has a milestone called Demon in a Bottle; its first condition, which gains him 1 XP, is fulfilled if the character finds himself in a situation where he is expected to consume alcohol. The 3 XP condition is met when Iron Man lies to a fellow teammate about drinking or when he gives a teammate reason to think Iron Man has been drinking. The final condition - which closes the milestone out if it is hit - is worth 10 XP, and is met when Iron Man drinks himself into a stupor or checks into rehab. Each condition fo a milestone advances a character's story, if not a session's plot.

When in a situation that calls for a roll - say, a good old fight between heroes and villains - you rolls a series of dice. You always roll affiliation, and then, if they apply, you might roll a distinction, a power, a specialty, and maybe a stunt or resource (you can find out about these if you buy the game). Two of these dice are your roll, and a third is your effect die; the first two are added together to compare to whoever you're fighting, and the effect die is useful only for its die size - it tells you how much damage you do to your opponent (physical, mental, or emotional stress), among other things. Every 1 you roll is a die that can be used against you by the GM (or Watcher), but every die used against you in this way gets you a Plot Point.

If the description sounds a bit technical, I apologize; I haven't actually played the game, though I would love to, so my knowledge is purely on paper. From what I can see, though, the game seems to be very narrative-friendly. There are no exact details about exactly how much a super-strong character can lift, or what the IQ of Reed Richards is; the power levels are fairly flexible. And characters like Hawkeye can stick around on the same team as Thor, because while their powers might not be as earth-shattering, they are more likely to end up with Plot Points that can be used to shape the scene. The flow of the game seems to be true to the way an actual issue of a comic book would flow, and everyone can participate regardless of power level. It seems to solve the problem of power balance by finding other ways of making the less strictly powerful characters useful.

In any case, I am very interested in the game, especially with the Avengers movie fresh in my mind. Once it comes out on DVD, I'll be looking to watch Avengers, and the movies that lead up to it, in one giant marathon; maybe I'll be able to be playing this game as well.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Playing Games

I like to play games. Mostly, I like to play video games and RPGs, though I will certainly play the occasional trivia game or board game when given the chance. This isn't a new thing, nor is it particularly unusual; I've been interested in video games since the original Nintendo came out, and in RPGs since I first picked up my 2nd Edition AD&D Player's Handbook about 20 years ago.

Yeah, yeah, this pretty much dates me. Yes, I got a Nintendo when they first came out, and I remember playing the original Super Mario Bros. game for hours on end, though I can't quite recall whether I ever beat it. And it was fun, but only to a certain extent. It was when I invited other people over so that we could take turns playing games, or even simply watch each other play, that I began to really enjoy myself.

Of course, the early Nintendo games weren't much for multiplayer action; you could only have two players, and more often than not you were playing against the other person rather than in cooperation with him. I never found that much fun; I wanted to play with my friends, not against them. I'm not the most competitive person in the world, obviously; I don't like the kinds of feelings that intense competition bring on, and so I tend to avoid them. So I looked, mostly, for single-player games, or cooperative-play games. Contra (yet another massively dated game) was one of the few that allowed people to play together, and I remember a number of very enjoyable afternoons spent playing that with friends.

After moving around several times (and having to find new friends each time), eventually, when I was around 12, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. Well, 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, to be precise. I was fascinated by the idea, because it told me that, without a video game system or something similar, I could get a group of friends together and play a game with a story like a video game, but with a lot more freedom and capability to include more players. Since I was the one who discovered the books, I ended up being the first Dungeon Master; I still have some reminders from those very early days. Eventually, I ended up moving again, and playing more, and moved on to different games.

Eventually, I went to college, and while I was there, 3rd Edition D&D came out, as well as the Gamecube (though that was near the end of my undergraduate years). I wasn't a very sociable person in college; for the first year or two, the only person I regularly spoke to and did things with was my roommate. It was having some much-needed friends, and gaming (through a club at school), that helped me to widen my social circle there. Eventually my social group grew to around a dozen or so people, among them my roommate, several people from my junior year dorm floor, the other guys in my senior year apartment, and people met through various advertisements on campus for gaming, as well as a few people who showed similar interests in class. By the end of my stay at college, I felt like I belonged there, which is something I had been lacking.

After college, I felt listless, unmotivated, uninspired. I moved back in with my parents, and tried a number of things, but nothing seemed to hold my interest. I made few social contacts, and the few I made were fleeting at best. Eventually, my family got a dog, Merlin, and while he was a constant companion, his interest in games was a little less complex than mine. Eventually, after some severe issues (which I won't go into here), I was diagnosed with, and treated for, severe clinical depression. I ended up going back to school, but the connections I made in my undergrad years were gone; I didn't live with, or really work with, my fellow graduate students, and so never got to know any of them, at least not really. My half-hearted attempts to reach out to other students never quite seemed to make an impact, and they still don't. Lest anyone think I am blaming others for this; I'm not; I'm just very bad at making friends and other social connections

So, I play games. Mostly, these days I play online games; after a number of years playing World of Warcraft, I stopped playing that; nowadays, I'm into other things, like Star Wars: The Old Republic (at least for the time being), though I am looking into other games like Guild Wars 2, or maybe A Secret World. These games are the main way that I connect to my friends across the country, who I get very few chances to see in person. They allow me to connect with people I care about, and have fun with them. I wish I could find a group, either online or in the area, to play RPGs with, but my luck there hasn't been so good.

Games are fun. They are one of the ways we connect with other people, and have fun with them. Games can have meaning, as well, even if that meaning is entirely fictional; playing a rebel in a game world conquered by bad guys feels like it has meaning, even if that meaning isn't in the real world. They give us a sense of accomplishment; being the one to deal the last blow to a dragon, or solve the last piece of a complex puzzle, is a great feeling. Games are, in some ways, more appealing than real life, because games have clear objectives: Do this quest. Save that princess. Bankrupt the other players. So is it any real shock that I often find games to be more interesting and enjoyable than real life?

After all, I can't slay a dragon in real life.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Return of the Mass Effect

After Mass Effect 3, I have again had Mass Effect on my mind; with
that in mind, I whipped up the following, though I doubt anything will
ever come of it.
The year is 2186.
In 2185, rogue Spectre Saren Arterius, along with his allies the geth
and the entity Sovereign, assaulted the Citadel; only the brave
sacrifice of the first human Spectre, Commander Shepard, defeated
The threat of the Reapers has been lessened by Shepard’s sacrifice and
the efforts of the Normandy’s crew. But the galaxy is still
threatened, from without and within. From the separatists of Cerberus
to the mysterious alien Collectors, from the synthetic geth to the
strange vegetative intelligence of the Thorian, many things lurk just
beyond the galaxy’s horizon.
You and your team have been called upon. Can you hold the line?
This is a game set in the Mass Effect universe, in a timeline that
diverges from that of the games after Mass Effect 1. It will use the
Mass: the Effecting conversion of the New World of darkness system
(this can be found at
The characters the players provide should form a team, whether that is
a small mercenary company, a planetary exploration crew, a team of
galactic scouts, or anything else that seems to fit in. For those
unfamiliar with the Mass Effect universe, a helpful source of
information is the wiki, which can be found at Let me know if
you’re interested.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mass-ive Effect

Note to any possible readers: I plan on discussing the Mass Effect series of video games in detail; if you don't want to be spoiled, don't read.

I have been a Bioware fan for about as long as is possible, and the Mass Effect series may be my favorite series of theirs. From the very beginning in 2007, I followed and played along with the story of Commander Shepard. I slogged through planets in the cumbersome Mako APC, fought off Thresher Maws with the (entirely too small) gun suite, and traveled the galaxy trying to avert a galactic catastrophe. Then I came back from the dead, searched for crewmates (and minerals) while working for a rogue organization, and in a masterful suicide mission, saved the galaxy again from the threat of the Reapers. And now, for the third time, I fight to bring together the squabbling races of the galaxy into a unified front against a terrifying enemy that could still kill everyone, starting with Earth.

The characters have been my favorite part of the games. In Mass Effect, you collected such a strange group for your crew: Kaidan, the biotic soldier bitter about his treatment by the government; Ashley, the gung-ho marine who dislikes aliens and worries about the place of humans in galactic society; Garrus, the ex-cop alien who wants to get back at the worst criminal he can; Tali, the young Quarian on pilgrimage looking for information to help her people and falls into a conspiracy; Liara, the absent-minded scholar researching a long-dead race who has crucial information and ties; and Wrex,the angry mercenary without a home, looking for a cause to believe in. Along with Joker, the fragile-boned, sarcastic pilot who flies your ship across the galaxy, this strange team unites to stop a disaster that could potentially destroy galactic civilization. And along the way, your Shepard, male or female, black or white, Renegade or Paragon, forms relationships with each of them. Garrus, though he is a Turian, an alien race noted for their military and harsh demeanor, becomes a close friend. Kaidan, untrusting of authority, begins to trust his commander, while Ashley slowly starts to realize that not all aliens are trying to bring humanity down. Tali and Liara, both somewhat naive and innocent, learn about the nature of the galaxy they live in, and those they can trust. Wrex finds a companion in battle to follow, and a cause he can believe in - the salvation of his people. And it is all because of your character; without your Shepard acting, none of this happens. Even then, you face difficult decisions; eventually, you must not only be forced with the possibility of shooting Wrex to save your mission, but you are forced to leave a crew member behind to detonate a bomb to save a world. You, as a player, begin to form relationships of your own with this crew.

this continues with Mass Effect 2. You are raised from the dead (after an unfortunate encounter with a much stronger foe) in a gruesome science experiment by a fringe group that claims to be working in humanity's best interests. They claim that your death was no accident, but the first act of the main body of the foe you fought off in the first game. They want you to travel the galaxy, recruiting a crew of strange bedfellows, criminals, and former associates, for a mission to stop the Collectors (the enemy that killed you) that has almost no chance for your survival.

We start with Miranda, the cold-as-ice contact for your new quasi-masters, genetically engineered for perfection but with little experience with real social life. Then there is Jacob, the human former soldier, disillusioned by his old job and brought in by Cerberus (the organization that raised you from the dead) as a reliable gun for hire. As we progress, we find Garrus, an old friend who has become a vigilante hunting the scum of the galaxy, and been scarred in the process, and then Mordin, the Salarian scientist reaching the end of his life with some interesting life experience and a great deal of secrets. The crew grows with 'Jack' (or Subject Zero), an unhinged biotic who has been in and out of prisons all her life after escaping a secret project experimenting to increase her abilities, and then Grunt, a Krogan (like Wrex), born in a vat, with the memories and genes of the greatest Krogan warlords in history, but no experiences of his own. Tali is brought back into the fold, saving her from danger and recruiting her for her technical expertise. We are introduced to Samara, an Asari biotic who follows the hardcore code of the Justicar, and Thane, the assassin looking for redemption and willing to join a suicide mission. Legion, a synthetic life-form looking to redeem his people in Shepard's eyes, joins near the end, while Joker still takes the helm, and an artificial intelligence, EDI, helps him run the show.

Throughout the game, as we (as Shepard) go on missions with these people, we get to know them and we can win each of their loyalty; each as a 'loyalty mission' that will make them more devoted to the mission and to you.You help Miranda save her little sister from the father who made her as perfect (and cold) as she is; you help Jacob to find out what happened to the father who abandoned him as a child. You help Garrus find closure (or revenge) with the man who helped kill Garrus' vigilante crew. You help Mordin stop terrible medical experiments being done by a well-meaning but somewhat crazed former student. You help Jack to let go of her past by destroying the facility where she was imprisoned and experimented on, while Grunt you help by helping him to discover how to really be Krogan, rather than just the memory of one. Tali you save from exile from her people because of mistakes her father made; with Samara you help her find the dangerous target she has hunted for centuries; with Thane, you help him keep his son from following his path; and with Legion, you help him keep some of his people from continuing along a destructive past. You can even meet some old friends, like Wrex, who (if alive) is running the show on the Krogan homeworld, and Liara, who has become an information broker, and even Kaiden/Ashley, who disavow you for working with Cerberus. You can bring your crew together, make them tight-knit and loyal and put aside old arguments and rivalries, and in the final accounting, you can do anything from lose everyone (including Shepard) in a glorious last stand or bring everyone out of your 'suicide mission' alive.

And now, in Mass Effect 3, you must again assemble a crew to bring the galaxy together in a final, desperate stand against a fleet of horrible alien ships, in the tiny hope that you can stop, or at least slow down, their extinction of all sentient organic life - something they have done every 50,ooo years for at least 30 million years. First is James Vega, a young lieutenant with anger issues who wants to live to be old enough to have his own ship; second is Ashley or Kaiden, grudgingly returned to your side now that you have returned to the military. Third is Liara, whose research may lead to the breakthrough find that saves galactic civilization. Next we find EDI, the AI from the previous game, who has found a robotic body to install herself in and wants to prove her worth both on and off the ship, as well as start a relationship with Joker, who is still your (wiseass) pilot. Then Garrus, serving reluctantly in the military because, since he has spent two games with you, he is the Turian's greatest expert on the Reapers, and is glad to reunite with an old friend. And finally is Tali, who has risen to a position of authority among her people, but joins Shepard in her desperation to keep her own people from extinction.

As the games progress, each builds on the one before; a Wrex who died in Mass Effect is not present in Mass Effect 2, and his absence is noted. Liara or Tali hating (or loving) your Shepard in one game will still hate (or love) Shepard in the next. Even minor characters recur, depending on how you affected their lives; you can help a slightly obsessive fan of Shepard become a crime-fighter of his own, albeit a somewhat scatterbrained one. The choices you make from game to game matter in how the next game progresses; while you can simply pick Mass Effect 3 up without playing the previous two, the events of the game will be missing many characters, and will lack a great deal of emotional effect. The characters from your previous games that you reunite with in Mass Effect 3 who are fighting, bleeding, and dying for a cause (or just for you) are like old friends, whose lives you have to risk to save everyone. This is a series where gamers have been told that their choices will matter, and that the end will all come down to the choices you have made in the past.

And yet, that is not the ending given. Once you fight your way to the end of the game, watching your companions, friends, and possibly even lovers suffer, fight, and even die, you are walked into a room with the Starchild (also known as Catalyst), who identifies itself as the controlling influence behind the Reapers. After controlling them to kill every sentient organic society in the galaxy every 50,000 years for 30 million years, he is responsible for deaths and murders that even Hitler could not possibly conceive of (30 million/50,000 = 600, so 600 cycles times, conservatively, 3 trillion lives per cycle = more zeroes that I can think of). It tells you that it knows that synthetic life and organic life will always try to exterminate each other, and so its Reapers must periodically kill off all sentient organic life in order to save it. There is no discussion about this; you can't yell at Catalyst, argue with it, try to reason with it, or anything else you have been able to do in an important conversation for the 3 games up to this point. You must simply accept that it is doing this all for what it sees as the greater galactic good, even though it makes no sense. And then, you are given three choices about what to do about the Reapers - you can destroy them all (and, along with them, all other synthetic life, including EDI), you can sacrifice yourself to control them, or you can create a synthesis of organic and synthetic life, thus eliminating the need for periodic galactic cleansing. Nothing you have done before this in any of the games makes any difference in your choices. You are simply forced to trust the greatest mass murderer in galactic history without the slightest argument and make a choice, all of which, regardless of your choice, essentially demolish galactic civilization as it is known. No giant battle scene where the combined forces of the galaxy face off against the Reapers in a stirring last stand; no touching scene where you have to say goodbye to your friends to save the galaxy. You aren't even told what happens after your choice, whether your friends live or die, how it all turns out.

This is not the ending I signed up for. In a series that has, as one of its greatest strengths, the relationships forged between characters, to finish the game without showing us what happens to our crew and the other companions makes it nearly meaningless. To finish a game about choices with a choice that you aren't given any real information on, from a being you have no reason to trust, robs the player of any meaningful decision. I wouldn't mind if it ended with Shepard doing everything right and still not being able to stop the Reapers (though I'd prefer a more Babylon 5-style ending, telling the Reapers to 'get the hell out of our galaxy' after smacking them around), but I want the time I spent playing the first two games, and the rest of the third game, to have meant something. The characters have become like friends, and I want to know what happens to them. I want to have choice. I don't want to be presented with three 'choices' which are all virtually the same and which have nothing to do with what came before.

I want to be Shepard the galactic hero, dammit, not Button Pusher #3.